Interview with Maria Taylor
Maria Taylor, a poet living in Leicestershire, edits reviews for Under the Radar, and teaches Creative Writing at De Montfort University. Her latest publication is Instructions for Making Me, (HappenStance, 2016). Her first collection, Melanchrini, (Nine Arches Press, 2012), was shortlisted for the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize.
“think children have a more fertile imagination than adults and young children especially have a natural instinct for poetry. I think we lose that sense of ‘play’ as we get older and place more value on what we view as being useful.”
“Poetry is a laboratory for experimenting with different ideas, words, outcomes and making sense of them. Or perhaps you’re not trying to make sense, but at least come to an understanding of some sort.”
Maria Isakova Bennett: It’s lovely to read about the range of writing you do: poetry, reviews, and short fiction. I’m especially interested in the development of your writing, working with an editor and the genesis of new work. I wonder if you can tell me something about how your writing has developed over time? Were you initially drawn to both prose and poetry or has there always been a greater tug from poetry?
Maria Taylor: I think of lot of people daydream about being a writer when they’re young. As a teenager I didn’t think of myself as a poet; I wanted to write books. ‘Books’, was a fairly nebulous label for something which consisted of novels, stories, children’s stories and poetry. It was when I was a student at Warwick, under the expert tutelage of David Morley, that poetry became a really big thing for me. After University I didn’t write much in my twenties, but I came back to it in my thirties. I poured all my energy into teaching before then. When I turned thirty I’d had a very difficult pregnancy, but my twin daughters and I pulled through. I drifted back to poetry and at that point it seemed very natural. I’d spent my twenties convincing myself that writing poetry wasn’t very important. Turns out I was wrong!
MIB: Yes. I think it’s true that many people ‘dream’ of being a writer but without really knowing what they will write. Maybe as a child they’re drawn to the solitude of it, or for something of the sense of order it creates. I’m interested that you say that you convinced yourself, in your twenties, that writing wasn’t very important. Do you think that was to do with age, or the culture / society we live in?
MT: I think children have a more fertile imagination than adults and young children especially have a natural instinct for poetry. I think we lose that sense of ‘play’ as we get older and place more value on what we view as being useful. Then you realize that ‘playing’ is just as important as what’s ‘useful.’ Then it becomes a vocation of its own.
MIB: I like the idea of play – your respect for it comes across in your poems, I think. I love the surreal qualities in many of the poems in your latest pamphlet. I’m still thinking about what you said with reference to a sense that you feel that it turns out you were wrong (about the importance of poetry). I wonder what gives you a sense that writing is important now? Is it to express, and make sense of 'big events', (such as your difficult pregnancy), or for daily life as well?
MT: Poetry is a laboratory for experimenting with different ideas, words, outcomes and making sense of them. Or perhaps you’re not trying to make sense, but at least come to an understanding of some sort. I think that’s equally valid. Poetry allows you to inhabit a situation or a mood in a way that thinking or talking about it doesn’t. My brain feels wired differently if I’m writing well. I don’t always write directly about life events, but I like exploring things in fragmented, sometimes surrealistic ways. It’s like dreaming with your eyes open!
MIB: The idea of dreaming with your eyes open is lovely! I wonder, do you think your difficult pregnancy influenced your writing? For instance, did you produce a lot of writing that wasn't necessarily for publication at the time? I wonder what you feel that the function of writing and composing poetry at that stage might have been for you?
MT: I’ve only written a couple of poems directly about that experience. There’s one poem in particular I’ve never been able to crack and I’ve been drafting it for over 5 years now. I’m not joking! Maybe that experience opened the poetry floodgates, so the happier by-product is all the other poems and the two publications that have resulted from that time. Maybe one day I will deal with it and write it all out.
MIB: What are the influences which you feel have been formative in your development?
MT: When poets are asked about their influences I sometimes think the immediate response is to list lots of poets, but if I’m honest it’s a range of influences that enable me to write. I like music. I like comedy. I like films. If I were to narrow it down to poetry then I’d have to begin by talking about the poetry publishers I love: Bloodaxe, Nine Arches Press, HappenStance and Smith/Doorstop. It’s because of these wonderful people that I have such great reading material.
MIB: Could you tell me what it is that makes the publishers you mention distinctive for you?
MT: Quite simply I enjoy reading what they publish. And not only the poetry they publish now, but their back catalogues too!
MIB: I especially enjoyed your new pamphlet published by HappenStance, but read with interest in your interview with Roy Marshall that you also write short stories. I wonder if you could tell me a little about the similarities in, and differences between, your prose and poetry. Do you find yourself exploring similar themes, for instance?
MT: Thank you so much! I am very glad you enjoyed the pamphlet. As for prose, I’ve not actually written much recently! I am a poet with a short concentration span; I think in bursts, I sprint. Poetry is more work per line than prose, but it feels more rewarding. Prose is fun though. As a Creative Writing tutor at DMU I’ve taught a great deal about prose and writing prose. It feels as if there’s more breathing space in novels and short stories. I’m intrigued by the cross-over aspects of the different genres. I like to play with form. Ask me in a decade about my own prose writing. I may have made more headway in that time!
MIB: I appreciate what you’re saying there, as I too wrote some short prose initially. I found that the prose was often a relief from the poetry and vice-versa, but, over time, writing poetry has taken over almost completely.
I’m interested in how your latest pamphlet developed. I know that Nell Nelson is tireless in her encouragement of poets and wonder whether your pamphlet, Instructions for Making Me, is one which grew slowly over time with frequent communication between you and Nell. For instance is the final pamphlet different to what you envisaged initially, and could you describe something of writing work for your new pamphlet and the process of composition and selection?
MT: Nell is a great editor to work with and to learn from. I was amazed when she offered to publish my poems in a pamphlet. HappenStance is one of the best poetry publishers around, so I was extremely chuffed. From start to finish it took from July 2015 when the offer was made, to September 2016 when the pamphlet was officially a real thing I could hold. One of the most difficult things, surprisingly, was settling on a title. I had a working one, ‘Not About Hollywood.’ It was ok, but Nell didn’t think it was neat enough. We had a few more, then suddenly Nell emailed me with a title that was a line directly lifted from one of the poems. It was a great example of how sharp Nell is as an editor. She doesn’t waste any time at all.
As for the poems, between us we decided on a plan for ordering them and that seemed to take care of itself over time. She didn’t waste any time in sorting out the minor edits. I gave her lots of poems, but the ones she selected seemed to conjure up a collective identity of their own. I think you can do so much by yourself, but you need a fresh pair of eyes to help out. Nell’s fantastic as that. Jane Commane (at Nine Arches Press, who published my first collection) is also on the ball. I am great admirers of Nell and Jane and the tireless, wonderful work they put into editing and poetry.
MIB: I think you illustrate the importance of a fine editor. I imagine you learn a great deal about your own writing and process in editing this way too. I wonder: in the period you were working on the book with Nell, (July 2015 – Sept 2016), were you writing new work? Also, was it different from what was being edited for the pamphlet, and if so, was there any sense of contradiction between what you were editing, and the new work you were writing?
MT: Weirdly, I didn’t write as much new material. I’ve heard this happening to other poets too. When you’re working on a publication for some reason you feel like you need a natural break in the writing process. I didn’t write very much for seven or eight months around the time Melanchrini came out in 2012. During that time I wrote bits and pieces, a few went on to become fully fledged poems. Isn’t it natural to let the process have a break? We’re not poetry machines! Sometimes the parallel of writing new poems and polishing up a manuscript requires different parts of your creativity, so writing new work has to take a break.
MI: I wonder if you can tell us a bit about what you are working on now?
MT: Happily, things have become more productive and I am writing more poems. The thing I didn’t take a break from was reading poetry. The newer poems are a bit…hmmm… lunar. The moon intrigues me. There’s a mixture of approaches from serious to comic. They’re pretty new so I’m not sure how they’re going to develop. Other than that it’s my usual take on biography, observing the everyday and surrealism. I am starting to immerse myself in writing poetry again and I’m enjoying the process.